My story shows how one day can change your life—one minute, one quick decision in a few seconds.
My girlfriend, Suzanne, and I were strolling up Broadway in the early ‘60s when JFK was president. A kid growing up in a tough neighborhood in NYC in those days had to be pretty macho and street smart to avoid being picked on and pushed around. It was something you learned pretty quickly on the streets, without ever realizing how or why it was happening. But my “one of the boys” attitude was just a front. Deep down I was an intellectual, a philomath, and a lover of the arts. I just didn’t realize it at the time.
Ah, to be free, white and 21, singing, “Hey, Good Lookin, Whacha Got Cookin” by Hank Williams. Just as I crooned, “I gotta hotrod Ford and a two-dollar bill,” we passed by the old Metropolitan Opera House on 39th and Broadway. Suzanne said, “Let’s not do the movies today. I’d love to see an opera. C’mon, you’ll love it.”
I responded not with abject contempt; I prefer to remember it as resolute disapproval. “Moi, opera, you kiddin’ me?” It was like she was trying to kiss me on the cheek in front of the guys.
“No, really, you’ll love it. Look at this.” She pointed to an old-fashioned, outside marquee printed in gigantic block letters: January 17, 1963, TOSCA, with Renata Tebaldi, as Tosca; Robert Merrill as Scarpia; and Sandor Konya as Mario Cavarodossi.”
“You expect me to watch a show, starring a guy named Sandor!”
“C’mon, silly. It’s not just ‘a show.’ It’s a beautiful story. Great singing, wonderful chorus music. Puccini was a genius. You’ll love it. Just give it a chance.”
“Geez. What am I gonna tell the gang if they ask what movie we saw? I dunno.”
So Suzanne added the zinger. “All right, ‘tell you what. I’ll pay.”
Now the truth was, I really did have a two-dollar bill in the pocket —a few coins, a couple of subway tokens, not much else. In those days, the movies were only fifty cents and the subway fifteen. Ice began to melt and I still remember her pulling my arm toward the ticket booth.
“Two tickets for the Family Circle, please.”
“Now I’m in for it,” I said to myself, like some shoplifter in Tiffany’s who just got nabbed sticking a diamond necklace in his inner coat pocket.
“Follow me,” said Suzanne, and we started scaling the most stairs I’d seen since I was inside the Statue of Liberty when I was in grammar school.
When we finally reached the top floor and sat in our upper balcony seats, just a couple of rows before the standing room area, I must admit I as amazed at the grandeur of the place. Immense but elegant, with row after row of enthusiastic opera lovers chatting amiably in their seats before the performance. The first thing to hit your eyes was the splendiferous, regal-looking red curtain—almost as high in the sky as the Family Circle.
The conductor, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, stepped onto the podium, faced the packed house, tapped his thin baton a couple of times, then turned toward the orchestra. He patted down the air at his chest and held his finger to his lips, as if he were shushing some brat kindergarten kid.
Then, (this blew my mind), the chandeliers hanging from tastefully opulent, resplendent brass chains suspended over the seats, began to ascend to the ceiling, gradually dimming as they sailed aloft. It was some sort of transcendence to heaven. The curtain opened to a gasp of joy from the audience that drowned out a feeble cough of an old woman deep in the balcony.
On display was one of the most beautiful sets I had ever seen. No movie, no sporting event, no Broadway show can compare to it. It was a grand cathedral in Rome, with engrossing statuary, fascinating objets d’art and somber but colorful paintings. A sacristan in a dark monk’s robe came wobbling out, mumbled some words in Italian and started attending to his daily chores.
Speaking of transitions, then the event that changed my life took place without my even knowing it! Oh, miracle of technology, this link is precisely what I experienced that day, fifty years ago, even the same Napoleonic-Era attire, exactly what an early 19th-century artist would wear. I can still hear the fascinating introduction, “Dammi i colori. (Hand me my palette.)
“Recondita armonia…” (Concealed harmony of contrasting beauty… Floria (Tosca) my ardent lover is dark haired.)
Konya then sang the most beautiful melodic line I had ever heard, ending the magnificent aria with an emphatic crescendo, “Tosca, sie tu” (My thoughts are only of you!).” No song by Elvis, Fats Domino, nor the great Dion and the Belmonts, is even in the same league. In a display of great writing, later in the same act, after the ardent and resounding declaration of love that Mario had just made, Tosca goes into a jealous pout and Mario sings “Folia”. In one of the most beautiful duets in all opera, Mario calls her, “mia sirena” (My siren). It sounded beautiful, because I understood the Italian. What could be more appropriate than calling the most famous singer in Roma, “my siren”?
By the time Scarpia pointedly got his just deserts, I was hooked and have been going to operas every year since then. I attended a few more operas at the Old Met, Aida, Un Ballo, Faust. I saw great stars like Tito Gobbi, Anna Moffo, Carlo Bergonzi, and the spritely, vivacious Roberta Peters as Oscar the page. When big shots decided to tear down the magnificent building in 1965 to turn it into a warehouse, I was more heartbroken than when I was 13 years old and told the Dodgers were leaving Brooklyn.
In hindsight, it’s clear to me now that the big shots who decided to tear down the Old Met were culturally deprived, yet were making decisions that affected the whole city—the whole county and the history of humanity even. Years later, Aristotle Onassis would tell Maria Callas, “c’mon, we have enough money. What do you need to sing for?”
But like the phoenix arising from the ashes, the new Met is pretty beautiful also. Since then I’ve gone to the opera at least a couple of times per year for 50 years. I often stun friends with such tantalizing tidbits as, “Did you know Franz Shubert was reading The Last of the Mohicans the night he died?” Or, “Verdi ended his magnificent career with a dectet. Nobody’s ever even tried to write a dectet.” (What can I say, I’m a philomath!)
The opera house here in Sarasota Florida is world class It’s not the Met, but to an old buff like me it’s heaven. What’s happening right now is often the result of decisions we’ve made in the past. Just last Friday, March 23, 2012, I took in Lucia and sat in back of Jerry Springer. At the intermission I caught his attention and told him, “Hey, Jerry, you have the honor of being the only real person in my novel, Mirror Reversal.”
In a sally of imagination, he replied, “No kiddin’” (No bull. I couldn’t make this up!)
“What luck,” I said to myself. “What serendipity! And all because fifty years ago, Suzie Casatelli pulled my sleeve and said, ‘Try it, you’ll like it. C’mon. I’ll pay.”